What Rob Lowe and I Know

A few days ago I found myself clicking on an article from Oprah Magazine that popped up in my Facebook news feed: “Ten Things Rob Lowe Knows For Sure”. I can’t say I was pining for an article showcasing Rob Lowe’s personal epiphanies, but I also can’t say I wasn’t curious once the opportunity to learn them presented itself. Since Rob and I are both featured in Oprah in May, I thought I would take a page from his book (or O’s magazine) and share some things I know for sure. I don’t have as many on my list (Lowe shared 10) and mine are likely to be less succinct – but then, these items are being written by me (unlike Rob’s, which are tagged, “As told to…”).

1. We all have a nasty voice in our heads that speaks to us in horrible ways. Telling it to “shut the @#$* up” until it can be respectful is one of those practices, like meditation, that we know is good for us but is really, really hard to do. Do it anyway. None of us is perfect. Letting that voice call us stupid, ugly, incompetent or worse doesn’t change that. Instead, it undermines our resilience and self-confidence. If you don’t want to channel Stuart Smalley, (aka Senator Al Franken!) that’s ok. Start by noticing when your inner voice is bullying you and take a moment to say, “Stop!”

2. Eating five slices of Casey’s pizza and chasing it with a bag of Easter candy isn’t the end of the world. Is it a great choice? Probably not. But it was the choice you made and there’s no point in dwelling on it. The good news is, it says nothing about your ability to make better choices in the future! It has been five years since I began serious efforts to live a healthier life. I haven’t reached a point at which I feel ready to say I’ve achieved all my goals; however, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and that I continue to move forward. I’ve learned that staying the course isn’t about never straying, its about always reminding yourself that you’d rather get back on the path.

3. Being happy and feeling happy are not the same things. Learning to differentiate between the two is an important aspect of self-awareness and self-discipline. Seeking the high of feeling happy in every moment leads us to take the easy road, to settle for lack of personal and/or spiritual depth, to flit from one person or experience to another in hopes of feeding the happy. There’s nothing wrong with feeling happy, of course. But right relationship with others, with our life’s purpose, with ourselves is what makes us deeply happy – and achieving these things takes us through tough times and difficult moments.

4. It isn’t all about me – neither how others behave toward me nor how I behave toward them. Remembering this allows forgiveness and compassion to flow between us. Especially if we both operate under this assumption!

5. What I know for sure is flexible, adaptable, malleable. It is these things because what we understand changes as we grow and as our life experiences inform our perspectives. At 18, the list of what I thought I knew for sure was long and adamant. Not so at 52. Now, I feel grateful for this lifelong learning process – I’m enjoying being surprised when life shows me new things. Which brings me back to Rob Lowe, who says,

“Staying young is an inside job. Look at what kids are. They’re curious, they’re excited, they’re interested—all of the very things that, if you’re not careful, you’re not when you’re old.”

And that, friends, is something both Rob Lowe and I know for sure!

 

Rob Lowe

You had me (and maybe lost me) at “Hello”

Molly and I got pedicures at different times before a trip to Florida last spring and, unplanned, selected the same polish color.
Molly and I got pedicures at different times before a trip to Florida last spring and, unplanned, selected the same polish color. Talk about connection!

“Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named not good.”
― John Milton

On Monday afternoon, I forced myself to bundle up and head out into the late afternoon sunshine for a walk. This long, brutal winter is taking its toll on so many of us. I confess to feeling isolated, compounded by a low-level anxiety sitting squarely on my solar-plexus. Getting outside despite the ice and cold helps. As does good old-fashioned self-talk. So, as I walked, I was thinking over the changes that I’ve made in my life in the past year. So much happiness and light on one hand, so much difficulty and anxiety on the other. I wondered, “Am I happier than I was this time last year?”

Just as I pondered the question, a young man walking toward me stepped out of the tiny footpath carved in the deep snow and ice, giving me room to pass. Our eyes met, and he said, “Good afternoon! Would you be willing to be part of a documentary film project? I have one question, and you can say as much or as little as you like to answer it.” He went on to say that he is an art student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design working on a class project. I’m a sucker for college students, so willingly agreed to be filmed (despite my resemblance, in my winter gear, to a Minion from “Despicable Me”.) He lifted his camera, started rolling, and asked, “Would you say you are happier today than you were last year?”

I started laughing. What are the chances he would pose the very question I had been considering? Synchronicity on this scale cannot be ignored! For a brief moment, I felt the sun on my back and glanced at the cityscape in front of me and felt the magnitude of change my life has gone through in that year. I can’t recall exactly what I said, but in that moment my answer was, of course, “Yes!” (and that I had just been pondering that very question). After I finished speaking, the student stuck out his hand to shake mine and said, “My name is Boris, by the way. What an amazing coincidence! Thanks for helping me out.”

I’ve written quite a bit, lately, about these brief encounters with strangers. I’ve said that striking up conversations with people I’m not required to talk to has enriched my days in a variety of ways – and has helped me feel less alone in my new home. Meeting Boris was one of many happy exchanges. You can imagine, then, my immediate reaction to the new project from Oprah/Skype – “Just Say Hello” – was a positive one. The project proposes to battle loneliness, endemic in our modern,  socially isolated culture by encouraging people to simply say hello to one another. It enlists enlists a cadre of celebrities and even has a theme song, written and performed by Rita Wilson. I 100% endorse the concept – and, as you know, I really work to practice it.

But.

Meaningful connection is what is needed to combat loneliness. It isn’t simply a matter of how many people say “hello” over the course of a day, though that can help. It is much more important that we find and connect with people who understand us, love us, upon whom we can rely. In her August 2013 article on Slate.com, Jessica Olien cites the research and concludes: “Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Loneliness is breaking our hearts, but as a culture we rarely talk about it..” (see the article, here) We don’t talk about it, because admitting we’re lonely, no matter how many of us are, makes us feel like losers. In my experience, we tend to hide the things we think make us look bad – which, when the issue is loneliness, means that we tend to shut ourselves off and self-isolate even further.

My fear is that the “Just Say Hello” campaign will turn out to be just another one of those touchy-feely-celebrities-making-themselves-look-approachable campaigns that will dissipate into nothingness. And reading the #justsayhello on Twitter didn’t exactly allay my fears – 140 characters is way more than double what it takes most people to say “Hello, Oprah” (even the ones begging her to follow them back, plz!). In my humble opinion, we have more than enough sound-byte inspiration and motivational memes. What we don’t have is enough people making it past that first 140 characters of interaction into the realm of real relationship. And I’m not dissing Twitter here (or other social media, for that matter) – I know a number of people who have developed friendships IRL from Twitter interactions. My own life has taught me, though, just how hard that shift from “Hello stranger” to “Hello friend” can be – how much more work, time, shared experiences it takes.

Over this past week, I’ve followed Oprah Magazine’s on-line efforts with the “Just Say Hello” campaign, and I’ve been heartened to see that they are taking it further. There have been stories about how that first howdy has led to lasting friendships, stories attempting to de-stigmatize loneliness by sharing statistics and causes, stories encouraging people to reach out. The focus is often on how you may not know what your “hello” means to someone else, though. On how you can help someone else who is lonely. I don’t take issue with that – I simply want to add to it:

My name is Jenion, and I am lonely. Even though sometimes I feel like a loser right now (and I HATE admitting that and would prefer to pretend I’m fine) I know it will change, that I won’t always feel this way. The power to change that resides within me – and I can be proactive in bringing it about. First, instead of curling into myself and isolating, I need to make extra effort to stay connected to loved ones both near and far. Rather than hiding my loneliness, I need to expose it so that those who WILL support and love me CAN. Second, I need to keep saying hello. Right now, most of the people I see in a given day are strangers. None of them will become friends if I remain silent when we meet. Third, I need to stop being ashamed of my loneliness. Given my current life circumstances, it’s pretty normal to feel this way.

If, like me, YOU are lonely, I encourage you to do the same. Being lonely does not have to be chronic or debilitating. If it makes it easier to reach out, focus on helping someone else – in the end, the life you save may be your own. By all means, just say hello. But whenever possible, take it one step further. Don’t let it stop at hello, take it one step beyond hello into the realm of true connection.

“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities; but to know someone who thinks & feels with us, & who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Matt and Zoe Rose being silly at the park!
Matt and Zoe Rose, part of my “world garden”, being silly at the park!

64,288 (give or take)

Wednesday. May 18, 2011. 5:34 a.m. My alarm had been ringing for four minutes before I woke at its insistence. I got up, feeling like a tub of something 72 hours past its use-by date. I was too tired to pee, so I got dressed first, then went in search of the bathroom. After vainly attempting to locate the light switch, I decided I could brush my teeth without looking at them. By 5:54 I was out the door, in my car, pencilled street directions in hand.

Trying to follow detour signs through the Loop in Chicago is an exercise in futility. There is one sign, telling you of the detour. Once you’ve followed that one instruction, the detour pretty much becomes DIY. Luckily, 6 a.m. downtown is not a heavy traffic time. Also, I have a pretty good sense of direction. I eventually found I-290 W and headed home in earnest.

It was raining. Morning rush hour was in full swing on the expressway. My brain was alert and fully occupied through the bottleneck that begins at Austin and ends just past Harlem (every/any day, every/any time, including Sunday afternoons). Eventually, though, the traffic thinned. I paid my first tolls, and I was out of the city. Another 3 hours of driving with the monotonous swish swish swish of the wipers. Unrelenting gray. And eyes that burned with the desire to close.

To keep myself awake, I began replaying the previous night in my head, attempting to reconstruct it from the moment Oprah drove past in the back seat of a taxi (filming the 25,000 people, mostly women, waiting to enter the United Center for her tribute show). In order. There were so many stars, so many video clips, so many images. I couldn’t timeline it. And that’s when the number at the title of this post came to me. It may not be the exact number -though I think it is at least very close. (I was not taking notes.)

64,288. This is the number of people who have received an education because of Oprah. (They didn’t have footnotes explaining how they determined this number, so for once, let’s agree to take it on faith that the number is accurate.)

64,288. I couldn’t stop thinking about how many people that is. How can one person have made such an important difference in so many lives? During one segment of the show, Oprah Winfrey Scholarship winners from Morehouse College filled, and overflowed, the stage. When Oprah joined them, they mobbed her, with hugs and thank you’s. That might have been my favorite moment of the night.

As I drove, I was thinking that these 64,288 people could change everything. I could see the assistance that came from Oprah as the catalyst, like a stone dropped in the middle of a still pond. The first ripple, the lives directly affected by her generosity. The second, the way those lives changed course and affected their families, friends, communities. The ripples, and the number of people affected, could grow exponentially, moving outward into larger and larger circles of influence.

And then I started mentally following the ripples back inward, toward the center. From 64,288 back to one. The still point at the center: one person. OK, so it was Oprah, not exactly your ordinary individual.

Still. I am one person, too. I can be that point from which change ripples outward into the world, if I choose. What would that look like, coming from very ordinary me? One thing I know for sure, to borrow Oprah’s phrase, is that it wouldn’t happen accidentally. Creating real change in the world – whether it is generating a greater atmosphere of kindness, educating the masses, building wells so that whole communities have clean water, or ending hunger – real change doesn’t happen without both intent and action. It isn’t accidental.

And this, my friends, is what kept me awake on the drive home, the morning following the Oprah tribute show. Not remembering the amazing celebrities or their incredible performances, though that was truly an unforgettable experience. Instead, remembering the 64,288.

I am one person. What will I do to change the world for the better?

(note: Thanks to my sister Anne for giving me the ticket to the show! It was a wonderful experience, sis! I love you!)